Colombia: Criminalisation of woman human rights defender Meilyn Zendaya Gamez Mendoza and the Indigenous Minga of the Zenu People
In Colombia, conflicts over land and territory and the development of infrastructure projects have historically been characterised by a lack of free, prior and informed consultation with the communities that may be affected by such projects, including by being expelled from their land or even criminalised by these projects. In this context, on 15 June 2023, the woman human rights defender Meilyn Zendaya Gámez Mendoza and the Indigenous Minga of the Zenú People of the departments of Córdoba and Sucre were denounced before the Attorney General's Office for the crimes of illegal retention of movable property (machinery) and kidnapping or retention of a person. The case was filed following the events that occurred on the morning of 15 June 2023, where the Minga sanctioned a worker from the company in charge of the development of the state road project “Ruta al Mar Variante UF 7.2” through a customary practice under the indigenous jurisdiction recognised in Colombia. The worker was discovered hiding in the area where the Minga was protesting, with the presumed intention of altering or damaging the company's machinery and blaming the Indigenous Minga for this, since it was responsible for its care at the time.
The Indigenous Minga of the Zenú People was decreed on 4 February 2022 by more than 16 indigenous communities of the Departments of Córdoba and Sucre. The Minga consists of the gathering of diverse actors, knowledge and tools in the search for a common objective. In the case of the Zenú People, this common objective is the collective defence of their territorial rights and the realisation of their right to prior, free and informed consultation regarding projects that might potentially affect them. The Indigenous Minga of the Zenú People has denounced that, in the development of the “Ruta al Mar Variante UF 7.2” road project, neither their presence nor the impacts on the territory were considered. The woman human rights defender Meilyn Zendaya Gámez Mendoza is an indigenous woman of the Wayuu people and member of the social and political movement Marcha Patriótica. She has also advised throughout Colombia on prior consultations for indigenous peoples on territorial rights and mining and energy projects, including by providing legal advice to the Zenú Indigenous People.
The Indigenous Minga of the Zenú has argued that, since 2014, when the “Ruta al Mar Variante UF 7.2” project began, state authorities and the company in charge of the development have not fulfilled their due diligence obligations to clarify which indigenous communities would be affected by the project. This has heightened the existing tensions between the parties because initially the concessionaire company certified that there were no ethnic communities which would possibly be affected by the project. Only in 2018 was a new certificate issued, which, contrary to the 2014 certificate, confirmed the presence of indigenous communities in the territory in question, but excluded two indigenous and Afro-descendant communities that would also be affected. Since October 2021, the Zenú People have twice requested the Directorate of National Authority and Prior Consultation (DANCP) to recognise the presence of these communities and carry out a prior consultation with them.
On 2 June 2023, the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI) informed the Minga of the Zenú People t hat the DANCP had denied the second request made on 4 February 2022 for the recognition and realisation of a prior consultation with these communitites. As a result, on 15 June 2023, the Indigenous Minga of the Zenú People peacefully occupied the site where the works were being carried out and where the concessionaire company's machinery was located. The Indigenous Minga has vindicated its territorial sovereignty by carrying out this type of protest, which has been provoked by the lack of a state response to mediate between the affected communities and the concessionaire company. During the peaceful protest, the Minga of the Zenú People discovered a worker from the concessionaire company trying to damage the company’s machinery, with the presumed intention of accusing the Minga of causing the damage.
The indigenous jurisdiction of the Zenú people has been recognised by the Colombian State 1 and, in the exercise of its jurisdictional powers, the indigenous authority sanctioned the worker through a customary practice of the Zenú people. Likewise, the worker signed a document acknowledging his guilt before the indigenous authorities. This action was public, and carried out in the presence of the Colombian authorities, including members of the National Police, and was also recorded by some of the people present.
After the events, the Indigenous Minga of the Zenú and the woman human rights defender Meilyn Zendaya Gámez Mendoza were denounced by the concessionaire company before the ordinary justice system in the Attorney General's Office for the crimes of illegal retention of personal property (machinery) and kidnapping or retention of a person. Meilyn Zendaya Gámez Mendoza has supported the indigenous movement and has accompanied the process of vindication of rights and justice of the Zenú People, but she was not present at the scene of the events in question. The complaint was made while a process of dialogue and the signing of a good faith agreement was taking place to advance the mediation process between the Minga and the concessionaire company. The company did not inform the Minga about the complaint, but it was the Ombudsman's Office who informed the Minga prior to the signing of the agreement which ultimately did not occur.
Front Line Defenders expresses its concern for the criminalisation of the Indigenous Minga of the Zenú and the woman human rights defender Meilyn Zendaya Gámez Mendoza. It is also concerned for the safety and integrity of the woman human rights defender, as it believes that these acts of harassment are in retaliation against her legitimate activity in defence of human rights in the absence of timely state attention to the Zenú people's demands for guarantees of their rights.
Front Line Defenders reiterates its concern at the climate of impunity and lack of protection for human rights defenders in Colombia. It also calls on the Colombian authorities to mediate the conflict situation in the Zenú territory, guaranteeing that the rights of the indigenous peoples, not only to their territory but also to their ancestral cultural practices recognised by the Colombian constitution, are respected.
1Article 246 of the Political Constitution of Colombia recognizes that indigenous communities may exercise their legal system within their territory, as long as they do not contravene the Constitution and the law. This recognition of legal pluralism allows indigenous communities to put into practice their own forms of administration of justice that seek to resolve conflicts within these communities in a peaceful manner and without contravening the legal system.